BALTIMORE — With Lamar Jackson back at quarterback, everything seemed to be easing back to normal for the Ravens, although the fact that they were playing in an empty stadium on a Tuesday night underscored the continued strange nature of this season.
Jackson, coming back after a one-game layoff because he tested positive for COVID-19, raced for a 37-yard touchdown run for the Ravens’ first points and threw a pair of touchdown passes as the Ravens (7-5) ran past the Dallas Cowboys, 34-17, at M&T Bank Stadium Dec. 8.
The game was originally scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 3, but was shifted after the Ravens’ game at Pittsburgh — originally scheduled for Thanksgiving night — also had to be juggled by the COVID-19 outbreak that hit the Ravens’ locker room.
Jackson was one of 11 Ravens who returned from the reserve/COVID-19 list for this game, giving the Ravens a much more complete roster than they had last week, when 10 practice squad players were elevated for the game at Pittsburgh.
The Ravens still were without Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, wide receiver Willie Snead and Pro Bowl linebacker Matthew Judon, all of whom remain on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and in another twist, wide receiver Dez Bryant — who was on the field a couple of hours before kickoff — was scratched shortly before kickoff and tweeted that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
The Ravens were not at their best — Justin Tucker missed a 36-yard field goal and the Ravens gave up a 66-yard kickoff return — but they were good enough against a Cowboys team (3-9) that missed three field goals and played down to their ranking as the worst run defense in the league.
The Ravens took the lead for good midway through the second quarter at 14-10 when Jackson threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Miles Boykin, and he later added a 20-yard touchdown to Marquise Brown.
Here are five other quick impressions of the game, which snaps a three-game Ravens losing streak:
1. The Dallas defense was just what the Ravens needed to get back up to speed.
The Ravens had every reason to feel rusty, with hardly any practice during the past three weeks and with several players, including quarterback Lamar Jackson, just back from the reserve/COVID-19 list. And there were certainly times when Jackson looked out of rhythm, such as a ball that led Marquise Brown too far and was intercepted, leading to a Cowboys field goal — the only one of four attempts that kicker Greg Zuerlein converted.
But the Ravens shredded a Cowboys run defense that entered the game allowing a league-high 156.4 rushing yards a game. The Ravens topped that number by halftime and finished with a season-high 294 rushing yards, averaging 7.9 yards a carry.
Gus Edwards led the Ravens with 101 yards on just seven carries, and Jackson finished with 13 carries for 94 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown run where he went untouched up the middle of the field after Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch bit hard on the fake give to J.K. Dobbins.
Dobbins finished with 11 carries for 71 yards and closed out the scoring with a 5-yard touchdown run.
It certainly won’t be that easy every week, and the Ravens will need Jackson to avoid turnovers and hit wide-open receivers, who he missed a few times tonight.
But for a Ravens offense that was trying to find its stride again and that was still shorthanded in the receiving game, the Cowboys proved to be a most gracious guest.
2. Their touchdown showed what the Jackson-Brown connection is supposed to be.
Late in the third quarter, Jackson started right, then reversed direction, rolled out to his left and lofted a pass toward the back corner of the end zone. A well-covered Marquise Brown adjusted to the ball in flight, tracked it over his shoulder, hauled it and dragged his toe through the end zone turf to complete a superb 20-yard score for a 24-10 lead.
“He delivered a great pass,” Brown said. “Really, if you don’t come down with that one, you can’t really say too much.”
The throw was one of Jackson’s best of the season, and it offered a hint of what the Ravens had hoped this duo would accomplish this year. Up until now, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Jackson has not played at his MVP level of a year ago, success throwing deep has not come as he had hoped, and a fully healthy Brown had not delivered on big preseason buildup.
Brown had just one catch for 3 yards in a loss to Pittsburgh in early November, leading him to publicly gripe via Twitter about his lack of usage. He went without a catch against Tennessee three weeks later. A few bad drops added to the problem.
Then Brown caught a 70-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Trace McSorley at Pittsburgh Dec. 2, and this gives him touchdowns in back-to-back games for the first time in his career.
Brown finished with a team-high five catches for 39 yards, and with tight end Mark Andrews and receivers Willie Snead and Dez Bryant all sidelined, Brown was targeted on nearly half of Jackson’s 17 throws.
After Brown’s touchdown catch in this game, Jackson raced over to him, and the reaction of the good friends suggested this has been a long time coming. The Ravens have to hope there’s more of this in the near future. Their postseason hopes might depend on it.
3. Lamar Jackson was his dynamic, fun self again.
At times this year, Jackson has seemed to bear the weight of pressure and disappointment, slamming a ball in frustration or sitting alone on the bench after another offensive possession stalled. Nothing has come as easy this year as it had during the Ravens’ 14-2 run a year ago.
Then Jackson had to deal with a 10-day isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, which he said gave him flu-like symptoms and took his sense of taste and smell.
But after missing a game because of the virus, Jackson looked like his old, playful self in this game, bursting untouched up the middle for a 37-yard touchdown run, racing to congratulate Marquise Brown after his touchdown catch and extending drives with third-down runs in which he seemingly dared Cowboys defenders to try to beat him to the first-down marker.
“The one thing you do know about Lamar, you’re going to get everything he’s got,” Harbaugh said.
Jackson showed exactly how difficult he can be to defend, as the Cowboys bit hard on his read-option fake to J.K. Dobbins, opening up the middle of the field and allowing Jackson to waltz 37 yards for a touchdown.
In the second half, Jackson twice scrambled for first downs on third down as he eluded the pressure and found no Cowboys jerseys at the second level. He simply accelerated to the sideline at the first-down marker, gaining 7 and 14, respectively on consecutive third downs.
Granted, he missed some plays, sailing a throw over a wide-open Miles Boykin and then sending a pass into the turf in the end zone short of Boykin on another series. He threw an interception when he led Brown a touch far and it glanced off Brown’s hand.
But Jackson was having fun again. That’s always a good sign for this team.
“I felt like I didn’t play a whole season,” Jackson said referring to his COVID isolation. “I was like, ‘It feels good to be back with my guys.'”
4. The Ravens have another COVID issue. Now what?
Just when the Ravens hoped their roster was slowly returning to normal, receiver Dez Bryant tweeted about half an hour before the game that he had tested positive for COVID-19, making him unavailable for his highly anticipated reunion with the Cowboys and casting yet another COVID cloud over the team.
Bryant had been on the field in a warmup jacket about 2.5 hours before game time, catching passes and greeting former Cowboys teammates.
According to Harbaugh, Bryant had an inconclusive test and then received a rapid test that was positive, so he was scratched with that the team dubbed an “illness.” Harbaugh said he couldn’t explain why Bryant was on the field playing catch a few hours before the game if his COVID test had been inconclusive.
The league apparently concluded via contact tracing that no other players were deemed close contact, so no other players were prevented from playing.
“You have to trust the science on it,” Harbaugh said. “The way they go about doing it, that’s what the league does. They put a team into place. I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks that that team is very extensive, and that’s their job. So that’s what they determined.”
Moments after he was sidelined, Bryant tweeted that he was “going to go ahead and call it a quit for the rest of the season .. I can’t deal with this,” though he later seemed to back off that sentiment.
Other players rallied behind Bryant, with Jackson saying, “We got the victory for him. I’m feeling for him, though, because I know this is a game he wanted to be in.”
Still for a team coming off one of the biggest outbreaks in American sports, with nearly two dozen players on the reserve/COVID-19 list during the past two weeks, another positive test has to lead to some uneasiness in the organization. The next few days of testing will be critical.
5. All eyes now move to a big game at surging Cleveland.
The Ravens efficiently, methodically dispatched a weaker opponent in this game, considered a necessary step toward the postseason. Now they prepare to face the surging Cleveland Browns (9-3) on “Monday Night Football” in a game that could have huge postseason implications.
The Ravens will surely need to generate more pass rush pressure than they did in this game, as they sacked Andy Dalton once and hit him five times. (Jihad Ward registered the sack and four of those hits.). The Browns are a confident group now with four straight wins, and quarterback Baker Mayfield has performed at a level lately to back up his usual swagger, with four touchdowns in a win against the Tennessee Titans Dec. 6.
If the Ravens lose, they can top out at only 10 wins, which might not be enough for this pandemic postseason. If they win at Cleveland, they should be in strong position to finish with 11 wins and would own any tiebreaker over the Browns based on a season sweep. (The Ravens cruised to a 38-6 win in Week 1.)
This season has unraveled at times on the Ravens, but there’s time to recover with one quarter of the season still to play. The date in Cleveland looms large.
This story was updated with Marquise Brown’s quote.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox